Discussion Thread #1: Irony

The thread of irony that snakes its way through the volume strikes me as hugely significant and generally under-discussed in most histories of modern music. RT’s century, which begins in the twenties, is marked by this unstable relationship to the Romantic “Truth,” not by specific musical techniques per se. By placing aesthetic distance and cool irony as the true marker of the modernist mentality, RT susses out some of the major questions of music in the last century: what is music’s place in history, what is its relationship to truth, and what role does it play in society? These questions came under radical scrutiny in the twenties.

As a teacher, the issue of irony seems to come up often in discussions with students. Perhaps this is because, for many, irony is essentially the only musical mode they’ve been exposed to in the popular music of their lifetime. (Or at least sincerity that can easily come off as ironic, like Kurt Cobain.) In any case, students are excited to learn that this expressive mode has a history prior to the Sex Pistols. Neoclassicism also helps contextualize the tricky notion that aping the past in the present is more a reflection of today than it is of that imagined, usable past. (This topic links up to contemporary pop all too well.)

To generalize hugely, it seems to me that major epistemological shifts like this count more in the narrative of music history than progressive steps on the teleological scale of technical development. If tonality (and its disillusion) is the primary bellwether for music historiography, who’s to keep us from beginning the “20th century” with Liszt in the mid-19th century, or Wagner, or Mussorgsky? Schoenberg’s early atonal works or Debussy’s non-functional harmonies seem just as arbitrary a demarcation line for musical “modernism.” In fact, tonality is a highly unstable and short-lived value system to begin with; it seems that just as it comes to maturity, composers begin picking at its seams. What RT points out in the “Pathos is Banned” chapter, however, is a wholesale rethinking of what music can and should do (musical ends), not just an examination of structural/technical poiesis (musical means). (I imagine that Cage and the 1950s will be framed as similarly decisive as a point of historical rupture.) This shift, as Mark trenchantly observed, is still active today.



  1. Ralph Locke says:

    Very stimulating post!

    But…. What’s to stop us from starting the 20th c (if irony is its Merkmal) with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or with a master ironist/proto-neoclassicist such as Saint-Sae”ns (the Septet, say)?

    In general, there’s probably no one feature (technical, like high dissonance levels, or quasi-conceptual, like irony) that can serve to mark the beginning of a historical era or style period.

    But, yes, irony is certainly much more abundant in 20th-century music than 19th. And, as Zach points out, it’s good to let students know that it didn’t start a decade or two ago!

  2. Paul says:

    Interesting that you comment that neoclassicism “links up to contemporary pop all too well”. I agree that there is an important correlation between the two, but I am fascinated by the idea that link might be ‘too’ close. I might be reading too much into your choice of language, but it seems that in some sense you regret the link between neoclassicism and pop provided by ‘throwbackism’.

    I’m coming around to the view that it is impossible to consider art music in the 20th and 21st ceturies without also considering pop culture and pop music. The relationship between the two is inextricable, even if it is also sometimes uncomfortable and I think that we should welcome evidence of historical similarity between art and pop cultures, and not be overly concerned with keeping the two separate.

  3. A Guest says:

    “…not be overly concerned with keeping the two separate.”

    A fine observation. In my education many decades ago, the “classical” and esepcially “modern classical” faculty raged against the effects of pop culture, presenting a one-flavored meal of radical avant garde in required attendance concerts, after which we students all went out and played pop music in bands to pay our tuition. I learned as much and more from practical experience as I did from the great, armoured defenders of the “modernist avant garde.” I still sometimes play “casuals” for the fun of it, but I never play or attend the stuff I was forced to consume so many years ago. This is repeated in my fellow students and now colleagues.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps you should provide the definition of Irony as you are applying it here. Many people don’t understand what irony actually is and misapply it constantly in reference to literary sarcasm. What definition do you use for irony in music?

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